Play All, p.9Clive James
Among the growing worldwide audience for box sets of American television serials, the quiet but insidious craze for Mad Men spread at a highly sophisticated level. People latched on who would never buy a box set of Entourage (too silly) or Californication (too dirty) or Band of Brothers (too noisy) or The Sopranos (too grisly) or The Wire (too druggy) or even The West Wing (too witty). But a box of Mad Men they had to have, even if they hadn’t seen a single episode on TV. Transmissions of Mad Men on mainstream channels, in fact, drew a notably restricted audience. In its land of origin the show was a hit for the cable channel (AMC) that developed it, but a big cable audience is a small percentage of a network audience, and in other countries the show was usually a minor event when it went to air. Even if it didn’t rate on a terrestrial channel, however, the distributors of the box set were likely to get happy, because there was an upmarket consumer stratum out there whose hunger for the product seemed to be made all the sharper by the fact that hardly anybody else knew about it. It was like a taste for some homemade ice cream that gets taken up by a big manufacturer: the marketing will depend on the message that somehow the product is still homemade by Ben and Jerry, even though it’s rolling out of a factory by the truckload.
There’s a lesson there about advertising: a mass demand for something often begins when nobody knows about it except you and your friends. Mad Men is full of the lessons that were learned about advertising in its late 1950s and early 1960s boom days on Madison Avenue. (Mad Men is shorthand for Madison Avenue men. But you already knew.) Because they were boom days, people came flooding into the business whose intelligence might previously have kept them out, and one of the continuing thrills of the show is the sense of mentally energetic people breaking fresh ground and building a new city whose ethical basis they might question if they didn’t so much enjoy the lawless excitement, the sexy buzz, and the view from the top floors. In this respect, the show’s closest predecessor is Deadwood: the Mad Men are ruthless Western desperadoes in tailored suits, swearing much less but smoking a lot more. They, too, risk death. Indeed the actors playing the Mad Men might well be risking death from too many herbal cigarettes.
If the show has a weakness—and, dare I say it, it has—it lies in the fact that this thrill of contesting and tumultuous intelligence is too often damped down by a lingering emphasis on character. That could be part of the elitist appeal, however: when what sounds at first like a quick thriller by Raymond Chandler threatens to turn into a slow novel by Henry James, there will always be readers who feel flattered, and they might be right. Character studies are hard to do, and they give actors opportunities. The central figure of Mad Men is a character study and almost nothing but. Tall, handsome, enigmatic, and effortlessly dominant, Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is the creative genius of the Sterling Cooper agency. The agency’s name is made up, and it turns out that Don Draper’s name is made up too: or at any rate he stole it. During the Korean War he switched dog tags with a socially more privileged dying buddy and came home with a false identity. So he arrives on the Avenue with at least one interior conflict already working full blast, and there are plenty more waiting for him on the road ahead. His childhood, fragmentarily revealed in flashbacks—there is a storm of them in season 6—was hellish, and he can overcome it only by mass philandering: he betrays his current wife with his last wife and betrays both of them with someone else’s wife. Don Draper is the most convincing portrait any size of screen has ever provided of a man compelled to begin his life again every few hours, each time with a new version of the only woman he can’t do without. He’s like Truffaut’s L’Homme qui aimait les femmes with all the lightness removed and replaced with uranium ore. Today his career as a kinky mass seducer would be inhibited by the security demands of e-mail, mobile phone, and credit card account, but in those days a man like him could disappear at will, returning from a late lunch after manifold debauchery. His compulsive life is a refuge from his ruined childhood; his drinking is a refuge from his life; and buttoned up over all that turmoil is a fatally attractive cool-jazz façade. Bidding fair, unfairly fair, to being the single most magnetic male character of the whole box set era, Don Draper is Don Giovanni in a Brooks Brothers shirt.
The actor who plays him is ideal casting for a commanding figure racked by secrets. Blessed with a deep voice, an athlete’s grace, and good looks beyond cavil but not beyond the bounds of credibility, Jon Hamm is the actor with everything, except the sense to change his name. There must have been a moment, just before he hit the big time, when he still had a chance to call himself, say, Jon Hunque. His agent and every friend he had must have been trying to tell him. “Listen Jon, for God’s sake listen. You’re going to be huge, but the word ‘ham’ means bad actor even with an extra ‘m.’ Change it. Change it.” But he didn’t, because he didn’t have to. We’re in a new world now, when the mass market can cope with the raw facts.
In the old world, as represented in Mad Men, it can’t. The facts have to be cooked, by the Mad Men. Few of the Mad Men are women, but since creative intelligence is at a premium, there is a door open for female Mad Persons to push through, even though the males waiting on the other side might have the sexual ethics of wolves fueled by alcohol. Doelike in her shyness of eye but needle-sharp in her originality of brain, Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) is determined to break through a glass ceiling that is set at floor level. You loved her as Jed Bartlet’s daughter: now see her fighting for lebensraum fifty years earlier. Made pregnant by one of the account executives—a marvelously off-putting performance by Vincent Kartheiser—Peggy hides the baby lest it slow her down. One of Don Draper’s countless internal contradictions is that he can see Peggy’s potential even while he continues to repress his wife without a qualm. Betty (January Jones) was a model, a Grace Kelly looka-like, until she met Don, but now she is a full-time housewife when not prostrate on the shrink’s couch. She has no idea of what her husband does in the office, or indeed, away from the office after lunch. (The same applies for his second wife, Megan, played by Jessica Paré as an insecure beauty who has chosen exactly the wrong man to lean on: as Betty tells him when falling back into bed with him after she has married someone else, to be in love with him is the worst way of getting close to him.) When at work, however, even Draper must be on guard from detection by the all-seeing eye of office manager Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks), she whose sumptuous behind is considered by the average journalist as the second most important character in the show. Most press pieces about Mad Men, especially if written by women, mention Joan’s salient rear end even before they get around to the sexual challenge posed by Don Draper’s brooding glance. The general assumption is that a dazzling job has been done of reproducing the way things were in those days.
It has, especially when it comes to things you can see. Right from the title sequence, which recalls the work that Saul Bass once did for Alfred Hitchcock, the look of the thing checks out in almost every detail. If you compare the look of the thing against the gallery of advertisements hilariously preserved on Lileks.com, it’s a perfect match. The men’s haircuts are exactly right, like their clothes. The women’s clothes are so right that it aches: underneath, the foundation garments must be firmly in place. Everything graphic has been reproduced from scratch, thus avoiding the usual anomaly of art direction by which people in days gone by read old-looking magazines. Even those of us who were alive at the time will find it hard to find a fault, and those who weren’t might well be led to believe that the atmosphere of a high-powered advertising agency has indeed been captured. Pulsing below ceilings that are almost always in shot—the camera spends half its time aimed up from below eye level—the pressure cooker is practically bursting with angst, ambition, and sexual tension. No hand-held shots; no Steadicam shots; even the technique is of the period. This, you are led to think, is the thing itself. But there is still more than one reason to worry about Joan’s voluptuous figure.
She’s a parody, and even at the time she would have been t
Right there, however, lies the biggest implausibility of the show. Most of the Mad Men carry on as if they read nothing except their own advertising copy. The only intellectual among them smokes a pipe, to indicate unusual thoughtfulness. The rest of them live in a world without books. Not even the supersmart Don Draper has a book in his house. At one point in the plot he stumbles on a collection of Frank O’Hara’s poems and his brooding attention is captured by the printed word. (This episode has done for O’Hara’s posthumous sales what Four Weddings and a Funeral did for W. H. Auden’s, but this time the readers are probably doomed to confusion, because very few of O’Hara’s poems get far beyond the condition of not being prose.) Draper also, at one point, dips into Dante’s Inferno, no doubt finding a world ripe for market penetration. (I hasten to admit that I wish my own translation of the Divine Comedy had already been on the bookshop shelves when that episode went to air: I might have done a bit of market penetration on my own account.) At all other times, however, the agency’s top ideas man behaves as if Gutenberg had never lived.
In Mad Men, the corporate world never questions its right to manipulate a captive audience. The truth of the matter was very different. Vance Packard had already published The Hidden Persuaders, and most of the people in the upper echelons of the consumer society had read it. Most of the Mad Men had read every issue of Mad magazine, a publication which, under the genial direction of its editor Harvey Kurtzman, was largely devoted to an unflinching linguistic analysis of salesmanship’s bogus eloquence. Social critiques were best sellers, just as movies like Marty won Oscars. Bob Newhart, Mort Sahl, Tom Lehrer, Jonathan Winters, and Lenny Bruce had already made their satirical records and most of the Mad Men had heard them. At the time, Mad Men were part of the off-Broadway audience for Nichols and May. In the show, a bunch of Mad Men might get tickets for Hair, and Don and Megan might go to see Rosemary’s Baby, but that’s about it. In real time, some of the Mad Men—notably David Ogilvy—were already producing successful advertisements that parodied the assumptions of their own culture. Ogilvy’s book Ogilvy on Advertising was a much-read vade mecum that helped the trade to consider itself as a profession precisely because its author emphasized the level of solid research and unpretentious practicality: “The customer is not a moron. She’s your wife.” Ogilvy’s autobiography Confessions of an Advertising Man was—and remains, in my view—one of the key critical works of modern times. If the Mad Men couldn’t look like Ogilvy—he was as handsome as Don Draper—then they certainly wanted to think like him. Armed with their readings of books like his, and eager to emulate his general taste and cultural hunger, the Mad Men were much more conscious of what they were involved in than the show makes them out to have been. They would have talked about it among themselves. There would have been subversive critiques a lot more penetrating than anything spouted by Peggy’s bad choice of radical boyfriend, the least smart rat in her rat-infested apartment. There would have been disputes, and, these being intelligent people, they would have been intelligent disputes about ethical purpose and legitimate method.
And that would have been the truly interesting conflict in the mind of Don Draper. In the show he spends a lot of his time questioning himself, but hardly any of it questioning his job. But questioning his job would have been part of his job, because one of the ways that advertising developed was by becoming more self-aware. Advertising was a medium, and that was what all the media did, on their way to generating the media world we live in now.
The media world we live in now has generated Mad Men, and it’s a high-end product, with a sure sense of the smart audience that preferred to find it than be hit over the head with it. Even when they were hit over the head with it by an adroit international campaign of promotion, they were still convinced that they were finding it all by themselves. But what they were finding was yet another illusion, though a remarkably nuanced and fascinating one. The illusion was of a past when even the smartest people weren’t quite as smart as us. There is still much talk in the press about how the secret of the show’s appeal lies in nostalgia—nostalgia for a time when a man was a man, a woman shaped like an hourglass full of peach juice had no ambition except to stay at home and cook, and everyone smoked like a train with no thought of ever hitting the buffers. But the show does better than that. It doesn’t make the mistake of presenting life on the Avenue as a fairground.
Indeed it’s a prison, and young Peggy will have to fight her way out. But few of them will think their way out, and the awkward truth is that a lot of them, in reality, were already thinking. They just hadn’t figured out what to do next, mainly because they were involved in a paradox: it was the wealth they produced that would give them the freedom to question their lives. Stuck with the same paradox, we revel in the opportunity to look back and patronize the clever for not being quite clever enough to be living now. Mad Men is a marketing campaign: what it sells is a sense of superiority, and it sells it brilliantly. Personally I still can’t get enough of it. But then, I could never get enough of Rothman’s King Size filters in the brand-new flip-top box.
Displays of Secrecy
IN THE YEARS that the Mad Men were perfecting their language, the Cold War was being fought. Eventually it was won, and therefore it could be treated as if it had never taken place. The bottom fell out of the market for espionage fiction, which had depended on the concept that national secrets were vital. John le Carré had nothing left to write about. When he had, movies and TV shows based on his books were artistic news, and some of them still look good in retrospect. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was the best starring role Richard Burton ever had, and the BBC TV series Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is still potent in box set form, with Alec Guinness showing the male actors of the future how to do an enigmatic smile: even Gary Oldman, who attempted a frozen face when starring in the movie remake, was Jim Carrey by comparison. It should also be mentioned that out of the several attempts at a Kim Philby chronicle, the best from back then remains the best today. It’s the 1977 Granada production Philby, Burgess and Maclean, with Anthony Bate and Derek Jacobi. Bate, playing Philby, was plausible at being plausible, and Jacobi, who went on to be a compulsory cast member of any spy story for about fifty years, has never been better than he was as Guy Burgess, although saddled by the all-too-faithful script with the problem that Burgess, in real life, used to conceal his secret role by stumbling into London pubs, ordering a round of drinks, shouting “This is on the KGB!” and then throwing up into his own lap.
But unlike Madison Ave, the Cold War, from the viewpoint of the show-runners, was a case of there being no future in the past; and in the twenty-first century there have so far been surprisingly few flashbacks to the age of Mutual Assured Destruction, perhaps partly because of a general assumption that it really had been MAD, unlike the Mad Men, who were the cold warriors that not only fought the battle but left a heritage: the market world that we live in now. Yet there is a lingering awareness among intelligent
This awareness is what gives a show like FX’s espionage thriller The Americans its strange authority. The tale of a married couple of Soviet-born sleepers living in Washington in the 1980s, it puts a big investment into getting the period detail right. It would be a handicap having to wheel on so many vintage automobiles, but there is a freedom in being able to stage a clear-cut battle: the KGB versus the FBI. (This being homeland America, the CIA has no jurisdiction, and does not feature, even though it was an ex-CIA officer, Joe Weisberg, who conceived the series.) The Red Sleeper theme is an automatic winner, because secrets have to be kept and a lot of hiding has to be done. (Still well worth watching, the 1977 Don Siegel movie Telefon, the story of a whole bunch of widely scattered Soviet sleepers who went into action as human bombs when they heard a stanza from a Robert Frost poem on the phone, was the second-best movie Charles Bronson was ever in, after The Magnificent Seven. Almost forty years later, Angelina’s truck-jumping epic Salt was living off the same plot.) On the point about the nail-biting tensions of a life of concealment, The Americans saddled itself with an unnecessary weakness right from the start. To accomplish their schedule of spying and assassinating, Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) and her husband Philip (Matthew Rhys) have to do a great deal of identity alteration, much of it accomplished by the wearing of wigs. As anyone knows who has ever needed to wear a wig professionally, putting the thing on so that it looks plausible is a task comparable to putting toothpaste back into the tube, and some of the wigs in The Americans are already starting off as looking pretty implausible anyway. Also, there is no mention of a secret lockup elsewhere in the city limits. Therefore they are keeping their wigs, along with their guns and other items of professional kit, concealed in the family house. Somehow their children never find the stuff. As a father of two daughters, I found this deeply implausible. In real life, children find everything in the house. Try a stunt like that and the day would soon come when your children would show up at the breakfast table wearing wigs and carrying a gun each. In The Americans it has never happened, but I am still sold on the casting. Rhys is a good Welsh actor blessed with the rare gift of adaptable teeth, and Russell is impossible not to adore, especially when she is plotting to kill someone while subtly registering her anxieties about her growing attraction to capitalist values. If you need a beautiful fanatic teetering on the verge of doubt, she’s the actress you are looking for. Just remember that the FBI will take a long time to find her. While the insidious couple rack up killings and wreak havoc, the leading FBI investigator Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) is living in the next house, and takes ages to catch on. Admittedly, when he comes to visit, he is never confronted by a couple of armed children wearing wigs, but he still might have tumbled sooner if not distracted elsewhere in his work. He is distracted by yet another Soviet operative, the insanely lovely triple agent Nina Sergeevna Krilova (Annet Mahendru): no gun, but she doesn’t need one. She has a complete range of high-tab Western lingerie, in various items of which she floats from one side of the screen to the other, touching the air with perfume. Stan, himself a married man, succumbs.
Play All by Clive James / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes